Monday, February 4, 2013

The Miracle of Great Neck

I don’t intend to write exhaustively about the 1985 Bears, but this game was so remarkable – and famous – that it is worth a review. For one thing, it aired on a special Thursday night edition of Monday Night Football, which they did a bit of back then. Aside from the Thanksgiving games, there was another Thursday nighter in 1985, the week prior to this one, plus a Friday night game in December between the Broncos and Seahwaks, for some reason.

The game used ABC’s regular Monday Night Football team, which for this season was Frank Gifford flanked by Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson – a couple of real ladykillers there. This would be Broadway Joe’s only season in the Monday Night booth. He wasn’t too bad, although he seemed reluctant to talk, and usually contributed only when Gifford asked him to directly.

Bears quarterback Jim McMahon had pinched a nerve in his neck the previous week in the latter stages of a destruction of the Patriots, and was considered for this game to be only the emergency quarterback. The emergency came in the third quarter, with the Bears down 17-9 and backup Steve Fuller unable to put the ball into the end zone. McMahon took over on the Bear 30, then stepped back and threw a 70-yard bomb on the first play to Willie Gault.

While this play has become a key element in the Legend of Jim McMahon, it ought to also have been a key part of the Legend of Walter Payton. The Vikings middle linebacker was not only blitzing but had timed McMahon’s snap count to the point that he was crossing the line of scrimmage as the ball was snapped. Payton, lined up to next to McMahon in the shotgun, saw this happening and cleared the linebacker out with a beautiful block. Without that block, McMahon would have been sacked easily rather than hitting Gault in stride 40 yards downfield.

After the touchdown and a Wilber Marshall interception, the Bears took over again, this time on the Vikings’ 25. On the first play from scrimmage, McMahon rolled out and hit Dennis McKinnon crossing into the end zone, into a window of opportunity that couldn’t have been more than about a foot. It was a more difficult throw even than the Gault bomb. McMahon had now been in the game for two plays and had thrown two touchdowns. Bears 23, Vikings 17.

Namath told a cute story about going to talk to Jim McMahon during the week, and having McMahon show up in an enormous neck brace that made it look like he’d never play football again. At the end of the interview, McMahon said the brace was just a joke and took it off, and everyone had a big laugh. Gifford, meanwhile, was just loopy. At one point, he said, “Jim McMahon has really fired this crowd up,” then realized the game was in the Metrodome, so just continued on with “or rather he has really quieted this crowd, partisan Vikings fans, of course.” ABC used to do this weird thing where, at the end of the third quarter, they’d show the first half stats, then dissolve into the third quarter stats. As soon as the first half numbers appeared, Gifford started talking about them as if they were up to the minute.  He didn’t even try to cover up that mistake.

McMahon picked up a third TD pass in that third quarter, and almost had a fourth when he connected with Dennis McKinnon down the sideline in the fourth quarter for a 45-yarder, but Vikings safety Joey Browner came over to save the touchdown. The Bears ended up coasting to a 33-24 win. Steve Fuller would go on to start four more games for the Bears that season, including the infamous Monday night loss to the Dolphins. McMahon would come on at the end of that one, too, but he was all out of miracles. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Snake Eyes

Oilers vs. Steelers, September 7, 1980, Three Rivers Stadium

The 1979 Houston Oilers finished their season by losing to the eventual Super Bowl champs, the Pittsburgh Steelers, in the AFC Championship Game, for the second year in a row. This was apparently too much for Oilers owner Bud Adams to take, because before the start of the 1980 season, he traded longtime Houston quarterback Dan Pastorini to the Oakland Raiders for their own longtime starting quarterback, Kenny Stabler. (The Raiders also traded, in a separate deal, Jack "the Assassin" Tatum to the Oilers for Kenny King and some draft picks.)

The 1980 Oilers opened the season, as luck would have it, against those same Steelers in Pittsburgh, with the Snake at the controls. And it was a disaster. Stabler's first pass was dropped by Earl Campbell, whom the Oilers were trying to make into more of a pass-catching threat. (According to Dick Enberg, in about the most interesting thing I ever heard him say, Pastorini claimed that Campbell couldn't catch a cold, and based on this game, Dante appears to have been correct.) Stabler's second pass attempt was intercepted. Stabler's third pass attempt was intercepted. Stabler's sixth pass attempt was intercepted.

At that point, I lost count of the number of Stabler's pass attempts, but he threw one more pick before halftime. Stabler finally completed more passes to Oilers than to Steelers sometime late in the second quarter, with a ratio of five to four. The score at that point was 17-0 Steelers. To be fair to Stabler, his best receiver, Kenny Burrough, was on the sideline in a Bum Phillips-style cowboy hat, blue jeans, and some kind of protective leg brace.

Although Stabler eventually stopped throwing picks, Phillips figured out a better use for Earl Campbell than catching passes in the second half: Earl threw a 57-yard bomb downfield to Billy "White Shoes" Johnson in the third quarter to close the deficit to 17-10. Steeler Theo Bell fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and the Oilers were in position to tie the game. Down by the goal line, new QB Stabler bumped into Earl Campbell on the handoff and the ball bounced into the end zone, then backward into the arms of a Houston lineman at the one. It sure was weird to see the ball land in the end zone on a non-scoring play, but there you go. Campbell took it in on the next play to tie it up at 17.

The Steelers added two fourth-quarter touchdowns to build up another lead. One of them featured Terry Bradshaw scrambling around before throwing a desperation heave down to John Stallworth at the goal line. NBC's cameras completely lost sight of where the ball went; they bobbed around the field after Bradshaw's throw, then finally found Stallworth after he had danced into the end zone.

Stabler iced it with yet another interception in the fourth quarter. The Snake finished 24 of 42 for 196 yards with five interceptions and no touchdowns.  Pastorini, for his part, didn't make it through the season as the Raiders starter.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Hot and Bothered

Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, September 8, 1985

Games at Soldier Field are famous for their brutal, unforgiving weather conditions, and this one was no exception. The Bucs arrived in Chicago to face 92-degree heat, which rose - according to a pregame graphic - to 121 degrees on the artificial turf. The stands looked more like the bleachers at Wrigley Field, with approximately 40 percent of the male customers (but approximately 0 percent of the female customers) going shirtless. (Meanwhile, across town, Pete Rose was garnering the 4,191st hit of his career, tying Ty Cobb's all-time mark, as Brent Musburger helpfully told us.)

The warm weather also pointed up how Coach Ditka had not yet established his iconic look. He couldn't really wear one of his sweaters, so he went with a short-sleeved shirt and tie, dark slacks and white sneakers. He looked like the newly promoted manager of a struggling lumberyard. To illustrate just how far removed we were from the mythology of Coach Ditka, CBS didn't even see fit to show a picture of him until seven minutes into game time (which is even longer into the broadcast, since the tape I was watching had no commercials). We had already seen several shots of Buccaneers coach Leeman Bennett by that point.

There were many questions about the Bear defense heading into this game. They had the best defense in the NFL in 1984, when they advanced to the NFC Championship Game, but two of their stars were holding out (as they would do all season). Safety Todd Bell would be replaced by Dave Duerson, and linebacker Al Harris would be replaced by rookie Wilber Marshall, and Tim Ryan and Johnny Morris harped on how this might hurt the Bears.

And for a long time, it looked bad. Tampa Bay marched all the way down the field on its opening drive for a touchdown. Then they took a kickoff back into Bears territory, and threw a 44-yard TD bomb on the first play of the drive. The Bear defense finally forced a punt on the Bucs' third drive, but rookie punt returner Ken Taylor let the bouncing ball hit him, and Tampa recovered. Again, they needed just one play to score. With a minute to go in the first half, they scored a fourth touchdown to go up 28-17. Rookie Kevin Butler, in his first NFL game, missed a 63-yard field goal - it was way short - as the half expired.

But in the second half, the Bears defense asserted itself. Leslie Frazier took a Steve DeBergh pass back for a Chicago touchdown. Shaun Gayle blocked a punt, which the Bears converted into another quick TD. Walter Payton had to come out of the game a couple of times, woozy from the heat, but he was marvelous: elusive, shifty, quick, possessed of incredible balance. He held the ball out away from him, in one hand, which other Bears picked up on; a couple of receivers did the same thing, as did Jim McMahon on a bootleg.

In the end, the defense was the 1985 Bears defense that has gone down into legend. Very early in the fourth quarter, the Bears went up 38-28, and the game was clearly over. Not only had the Bucs stopped moving the ball, but they were frustrated and angry, just as every other Bears opponent would be that year. It can't have been much fun to have an untouched Richard Dent swooping down on you.

After allowing 28 points in the first half of the first game of the year, the Bears wouldn't allow that many points in an entire game until week 13 in the infamous Monday Nighter against the Dolphins. I'm not savvy enough to read the defensive formations on the TV screen, but I did notice that in the first half, the Bears occasionally had nickel back Shaun Gayle on the field, which means they weren't running a strict 46 defense at that point. I wonder if Buddy Ryan decided at halftime that it was time to go full-out into the 46 - and the rest was history.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Kiick in the Pants

Oakland Raiders vs. Miami Dolphins at the Orange Bowl, September 22, 1975

There was a lot of history incumbent on this game, the first one on the Monday night schedule of 1975. In the 1974 playoffs, the Raiders had dethroned the two-time-champion Dolphins on the infamous Sea of Hands play, with a tumbling Ken Stabler finding Clarence Davis for the game-winning touchdown. Subsequent to that, the Dolphins lost Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield to the Memphis Grizzlies; this would be their first game of the WFL era.

Blanda, Otto: Chuffed
For the Raiders, this was the first game in their entire history without longtime center Jim Otto, who had moved upstairs to become their business manager. Literally, this was the first Oakland Raiders game that Jim Otto didn't play in. Ever. (Howard Cosell noted that Otto was now reduced to complaining that dinner for the Raiders cost eighteen and a half bucks per man.) Otto didn’t exactly retire, and he didn’t get released: The team just started playing Dave Dalby at center, and let Otto sit on the sidelines in preseason until he got the message. He must have been totally chuffed to spend the evening on the sidelines talking to George Blanda, who was more than ten years older than Otto, but still had a slot on the team. Ray Guy, though, had taken over the kickoff duties.

The two constants for these teams were the coaches, Madden and Shula “his indomitability etched in his visage,” said Guess Who - maybe the most recognizable coaches in the game along with Landry and possibly Noll. The booth team talked about how Madden looked as dapper as ever, but I always thought he dressed like crap, white belt or no.

Jerry, Betty: Sloshed but unhit
Actual American history intruded on the game as well. That afternoon, Sara Jane Moore fired a shot in the direction of President Ford, following in the footsteps of assassination-minded babe Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme 17 days earlier, and the broadcast switched to Harry Reasoner for a full report at halftime. (This wasn’t on the tape I watched.) In the fourth quarter, ABC News broke away from the game to show President Ford addressing the press corps about the situation, a visibly sloshed Betty at his side, as we missed the guts of an ultimately futile Dolphins comeback drive.

This was Alex Karras’ second year in the MNF booth, and he had become the Otis Sistrunk bureau chief, after famously declaring Otis a graudate of the University of Mars the year before. In reality, Sistrunk, who grew up in a very poor family, was lucky to finish high school and had to go to work in a warehouse when he otherwise might have been playing college ball. Of course, Cosell needled Karras into saying something every time Sistrunk – his jersey majestically untucked- did something in the game, which he did with great regularity.

The game itself was kind of anticlimactic: The Raiders jumped out to a 17-0 lead, then held on for a 31-21 victory. Despite the legendary MNF production values, the broadast itself wasn’t very good. At the end of the third quarter, with the Dolphins mounting a furious comeback, Miami receiver Howard Twilley caught a pass right at the goal line as he was coming back toward Bob Griese. It looked like a touchdown to me – Howard Cosell belatedly agreed – but the ball was spotted at the one. Incredibly, there was no replay of any kind until after Don Nottingham crashed across the goal line on the next play, and then it was only the same inconclusive angle from which we had originally seen the play. They did however, get a good shot of a Dolphin assistant trainer, coming on to help Nat Moore off the field, wearing cutoff denim shorts. Hey, it was the '70s.

The broadcast's one shining moment was a brief segment with William Shatner in the booth. Shatner, fresh off his triumphant turn in Big Bad Mama, was starring in a new ABC series called Barbary Coast, which had premiered two weeks earlier. It didn’t even last as long as the NFL season.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Outlaw Country

Raiders vs. Falcons, October 14, 1979 at the Oakland Coliseum

On paper, it seemed like a good game: 1979 was part of a brief window of competence the Falcons displayed in the Steve Bartkowski era, and the Raiders in the 1970s were always fun. But not only was the game a blowout, but it wasn’t even particularly interesting. The Raiders were in transition; John Madden had retired before the start of the season, leaving Tom Flores with his blow-dried hair and lapels the size of a small child on the sidelines. Freddy Biletnikoff had retired. Otis Sistrunk had gone to wherever the Otis Sistrunks of the world go to.

Plus, Cliff Branch was absent with some sort of illness – Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier were highly suspicious of whatever was ailing Branch – leaving Rich Martini as the No. 1 wide receiver for Kenny Stabler. I never heard of him either. This was one of five  career starts for Martini, a rookie seventh-round pick out of Cal-Davis, and he hauled in six passes for a career high. (The Raiders did have Raymond Chester and Dave Casper starting in a two tight-end set, plus rookie Todd Christensen playing on special teams, which has gotta be the greatest collection of tight end talent any team has ever had.)

At one point, the cameras spotted Waylon Jennings, or someone looking an awful lot like him, on the sideline, producing the following conversation:
PAT: Waylon Jennings!
TOM: All right!
PAT: That is not of course Waylon Jennings. Oh, it is! That’s Martini [making a grab near the sidelines]. A couple of weeks ago, we had a person we thought was Captain Kangaroo, turned out not to be the Captain. And I wasn’t really sure if that was Waylon Jennings or not.
TOM: Couldn’t tell with the shades. I know that’s Ken Stabler.

There was a real C&W vibe to the entire proceedings. Falcons coach Leeman Bennett was not just wearing a trucker hat but had a big chaw in the side of his mouth, leaving him as a perfect emblem of Atlanta in the 1970s.

As far as the game goes, the Raiders leapt out to a 19-0 lead in the first half, as Falcon kicker Tim Mazzetti missed two field goals. They made it 26-0 on the opening drive of the second half, then stretched it out to 50-12 as Mazzetti missed two extra points. He finally converted on a garbage-time TD that made the final 50-19. I kind of assumed Mazzetti was going to be cut after that performance, but Bennett kept him around, and kept him even though the next week against the 49ers, Mazzetti went 0-for-2 on extra points. He hung on kicking for Atlanta all the way through the 1980 season.

The biggest thing about this game was that the newly retired Madden, who was already doing games for CBS, did a brief interview at halftime, then sat in with Brookshier and Summerall for the entire second half. He wasn’t a finished product – he didn’t say doink even once – but he was clearly, right out of the gate, an astonishingly good broadcaster. He knew everything the Raiders were trying to do, and why it was likely to succeed or not, without ever coming off as a know-it-all, or even trading all that much on his position as their former coach. He was just very observant, very good with the language, and a lot of fun.  
According to an unconfirmed report I saw on Wikipedia, CBS decided at this point that Madden needed to be on their A broadcasting team, and the only question was who to pair him with. The decision came down to Summerall or Vin Scully, and they decided the laconic Summerall would mesh well with the loquacious Madden. That was probably the right choice, although Scully was also extremely good at football. The most important thing about this game is that here, October 14, 1979, is where Summerall and Madden first worked as a team. 

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Hour of Our Death

Vikings vs. Cowboys at Metropolitan Stadium (Divisional Playoffs), December 28, 1975
One thing I’m interested to discover in watching all these old games is when exactly football players decided it wasn’t macho to wear long sleeves in cold weather. The 1975 Cowboys-Vikings playoff game was played in very cold conditions – you could see Bud Grant’s breath, which was helpful in that it reassured the viewer that he was actually alive. One of the contrasts to today’s game is that all the players were wearing long undersleeves, with the notable exception of Roger Staubach. I think he and Preston Pearson were the only players on the field in short sleeves.

It seems to me that there was a single game in there that was a turning point, when the players decided it would look unmanly to take the field in short sleeves, although I can’t recollect exactly when that was. Whenever I watch a cold-weather game nowadays, I make a point of rooting for that small handful of players who are sensible enough to dress for the conditions.

Speaking of uniforms, the Vikings jerseys from this game – from this era – were a rich, saturated purple, looking gorgeous even on the several-generation videotape I watched the game on. The Falcons uniforms had a similar texture to them, with a glorious rich red. I think the stretchy mesh jerseys of today don’t hold their colors nearly as well.

Metropolitan Stadium appears to have been a crummy place to watch a game. With the football field situated in the center of the baseball field, the sideline stands were a long way from the action. Watching the game on TV, you get an enervated feeling because of that, with long swaths of tarpaulins and snow extending back from the sidelines. The handheld sideline cams showing the coaches would catch the industrial-looking scoreboard with its steel girders, or even gray sky from the open corners of the stadium. Plus, it looks really cold.

For some reason, CBS put Gary Bender and Johnny Unitas on this game, rather than Summerall and Brookshier (who may have been at the Rams/Cardinals game the day before) or Vin Scully and George Allen. Scully and Sonny Jurgensen would do the Rams/Cowboys NFC Championship the following week. Scully, by the way, was a great football announcer; I may be a minority of one here, but I prefer his work on football to his work on baseball.

I haven’t said very much about the game itself, I know. I can remember watching this game as a very young Vikings fan and being totally bummed out about the ending, first by Drew Pearson’s amazing sideline catch at the 50 on a fourth and 17 with 37 seconds to go, then by Pearson’s TD catch two plays later.

In truth, though, the Vikings didn’t really deserve to win this game. Their first touchdown came after a Cowboy rookie offensive lineman named Pat Donovan stupidly touched a bouncing Vikings punt on his own three-yard line, leading to a Vikings recovery and a quick score. On top of that, it sure looked to me like the Vikings interfered with the man trying to catch the punt, who had signaled for a fair catch. In the end, the Cowboys grossly outgained the Vikings, 356 yards to 215.

Something else you may not know about this game: With 14 seconds left, after the Cowboys scored the winning touchdown, field judge Armen Terzian – who had just decided not to call offensive pass interference on Drew Pearson - got hit by something thrown from the stands and went down like a shot. He would eventually be led off the field with a big white bandage around his head.

Bender speculated that the instrument of destruction was a pop bottle, and Unitas went all “Minnesota, love it or leave it.” He said, “There’s no room in this country for that kind of behavior,” then started rambling on about “Argentina, where they stab the soccer players and stuff like that.” You tell ‘em, Johnny U.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The John Lennon Game

Patriots vs. Dolphins at the Orange Bowl, December 8, 1980

This was a fairly desultory affair for a Monday Nighter, with a quarterback matchup pitting David Woodley against Matt Cavanaugh, and not a whole lot happened till the end. The Patriots, I had long since forgotten, had added Chuck Foreman as a third-down back, and for some bizarre reason, every time Foreman appeared in the game, Howard Cosell loudly wondered why in the world the Pats weren’t using him more often. I guess he could empathize with a faded big name who was clearly no longer capable of getting the job done.

Foreman was totally washed up at this point; having lost his job as the Vikings’ starting running back in 1979, when he gained 223 yards at an average of just 2.6 yards a pop. This would be the last NFL game of his career. The Patriots also had Harold Jackson on the roster, in an apparent attempt to reunite the 1975 NFC Pro Bowl team.

One of the best things about the tape I watched was that the commercials were intact. I always prefer to have the commercials on the games I watch, to provide the full cultural context of the moment. I particularly enjoy seeing which celebs were endorsing products at that point: Here we have Orson Welles for Paul Masson wines, Suzanne Somers for Ace Hardware, Bruce Jenner for Minolta. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice any future stars working their way up in the business, though. The absolute pinnacle in this regard was the 1970 NFC Championship between the Cowboys and the 49ers, which featured an up-and-coming Vic Tayback for Edge and a down-and-outing Rod Serling for Ford. Seeing the Ford spot really made you appreciate what yeoman work the Twilight Zone staff did on trimming Serling’s eyebrows.

Of course, late in the fourth quarter, this game became part of history. There's a legend that has grown up around it, fostering the notion that the person who broadcast the news of the murder of John Lennon to the American public was Howard Cosell. Last year, ESPN devoted an entire special to the role played by Monday Night Football on that terrible night.

But by the time Cosell got around to telling the nation what had happened, many people already had a pretty solid inkling. On the telecast I watched, taped off the air from the ABC affiliate in Baltimore, with three minutes left in the game, there was a special news bulletin reported via crawl, noting that "Former Beattle [sic] John Lennon" had been shot. The text appeared just as the Dolphins were connecting on a deflected touchdown pass that a surprised Nat Moore snared at the side of the end zone to tie up the game at 13-13.

It wasn't until the Patriots were lined up for a potential game-winning field goal, with just three seconds left in the game, that Cosell made his fateful announcement. That was about 12 minutes in real time after the crawl had appeared in Baltimore. Clearly, many football fans in Charm City - and presumably elsewhere around the country - knew Lennon had been shot or even killed before Cosell said anything about it.

The Dolphins blocked that kick, by the way, sending the game into overtime, to the obvious dismay of Cosell and Frank Gifford, who clearly could not fathom how they were going to shift gears back into the excitement of professional football. Fran Tarkenton, the third man in the booth, just seemed oblivious.

Part of this may be due to the lag between the initial reports, which were simply that Lennon had been shot, and word of his death. On the other hand, there couldn't have been too much time in between, since he was reported DOA at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital. One wonders if the shooting of a Beatle would have been enough to disrupt Monday Night Football, as opposed to the death of one. I really don't know.

In overtime, the Dolphins won the toss, Woodley connected with Duriel Harris on a long over-the-shoulder pass, and Uwe von Schamann kicked a game-winning field goal on the next play, sending all those Dolphin fans home to find out there were only three Beatles left.